Admiral Phillip/Chapter 6

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In a paragraph of Phillip's 'Instructions,' he was enjoined to use every possible means 'to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections.' If any of them were ill-treated or wantonly destroyed by the whites, he was to bring the offenders to punishment; and was to report his opinion to one of the Secretaries for State as to the way in which intercourse with these people could be turned to the advantage of the colony.

The manner and spirit in which he carried out this part of his duties supplies us with an interesting if not altogether agreeable chapter in the narrative of the Governor's administration. Light and pleasant reading is none too common, naturally enough, in the annals of the penal settlement.

Phillip very often turned from the disheartening duty of trying to civilise his prisoners to the more promising task of tutoring the native savages, either as a relaxation, or because he really believed that the blacks could be taught to work, and so add to the wealth of his poor territory; for either or both of these reasons, there was nothing in which the first Governor of Australia took a greater, or more intelligent interest.

A great number of people, many of whom have never met him or who have only made his acquaintance through the medium of a bottle of rum, have asserted that the Australian aboriginal belongs to the lowest type of humanity, and his warmest admirers will admit that he is a long way below the American Indian, the African negro, or the Polynesian.

But even in recent times the Australian blacks, as the rank and file in exploring expeditions, as trackers in the police force, or as ordinary day-labourers on cattle and sheep stations, have earned from their masters the best of characters. However, in this book we have no concern with the present day blacks—the civilising process has well nigh got rid of them, and the majority of the few that remain, have either become good Christians, regularly under the missionary influence, or are cheerfully drinking themselves to death.

Phillip's first meeting with the natives was at Botany Bay, and he wrote of them as follows:—

'With respect to the natives, it was my determination from my first landing that nothing less than the most absolute necessity should ever make me fire upon them.'

La Pérouse had been obliged to fire on them at Botany Bay; and this, coupled with the bad behaviour of some of the transport seamen and convicts, caused the natives to avoid the settlers at Port Jackson for a time. Phillip himself, while at Botany Bay, had very quickly made friends with them by going among them alone and unarmed, and no disputes occurred with them during his stay there. They were all naked, but quickly ornamented themselves with the beads and pieces of red baize given to them. When Phillip's boat party entered Port Jackson, many armed blacks met them upon landing, and were 'very vociferous.' One of them, who appeared to be the master of the family, was induced by the Governor to accompany him to where the marines were boiling some meat, and examine what was in the pot. 'He exprest his admiration,' says Phillip, 'in a manner that made me believe he intended to profit from what he saw. … I believe they know no other way of dressing their food but by broiling, and they are seldom seen without a fire, or a piece of wood on fire, which they carry with them from place to place, and in their canoes, so that I apprehend they find some difficulty in procuring fire by any other means with which they are acquainted.[1] The boats, in passing near a point of land in the harbour, were seen by a number of men, and twenty of them waded into the water unarmed, received what was offered them, and examined the boats with a curiosity that gave me a much higher opinion of them than I had formed from the behaviour of those seen in Captain Cook's voyage, and their confidence and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place. The same people afterwards joined us where we dined; they were all armed with lances, two with shields and swords—the latter made of wood, the gripe small, and I thought less formidable than a good stick. As their curiosity made them very troublesome when we were preparing our dinner, I made a circle round us. There was little difficulty in making them understand that they were not to come within it, and they then sat down very quiet. The white clay rubbed on the upper part of the face of one of these men had the appearance of a mask; and a woman that appeared on some rocks near which the boats passed was marked with white on the face, neck and breasts, in such a manner as to render her the most horrid figure I ever saw. They are not often seen marked in this manner, and it is only done on some particular occasions.'

The women, he noticed, appeared to be less cheerful than the men, and under great subjection, though at Broken Bay several of them met Phillip's landing party, and 'one of them, a young woman, was very talkative and remarkably cheerful. … The talkative lady, when she joined us in her canoe the day after we first landed, stood up and gave us a song that was not unpleasing. As most of the women have lost the two first joints of the little finger on the left hand, so most of the men want the right front tooth in the upper jaw, and have the gristle that separates the nostrils perforated, frequently having a piece of stick or a bone thrust through, and which does not add to their beauty. This is general, but I saw some very old men that had not lost the tooth, and whose noses were not perforated for this ornament. On my showing them that I wanted a front tooth, it occasioned a general clamour, and I thought gave me some little merit in their opinion.'

On another occasion, at Broken Bay, an old black appeared and guided the boats to a safe landing-place, and then rendered assistance in clearing the ground 'for a camping-place. His behaviour was so friendly that Phillip gave him a hatchet and other presents, but, when it was dark, he returned and stole a spade. The Governor, to show his displeasure, 'gave him two or three slight slaps on the shoulder' with his open hand. … 'Seizing a spear, he came close up to me, poised it, and appeared determined to strike. … This circumstance is mentioned to show that they do not want personal courage, for several officers and men were then near me. …

'They cannot be called a very cleanly people, yet I have seen one of them, after having in his hand a piece of pork, hold out his fingers for others to smell, with strong marks of disgust; and tho' they seldom refused bread or meat if offered them, I have never been able to make them eat with us, and when they left us they generally threw away the bread and meat; but fish they always accepted, and would broil and eat it.' Phillip estimated the number of blacks living about Botany Bay, Broken Bay, Port Jackson and the immediate coast as not less than fifteen hundred.

Soon after landing. Captain Hunter, with the first lieutenant of the Sirius, set about making a survey of Port Jackson and exploring the bays and arms of Sydney Harbour. Hunter often came across the natives while at this work, and the shyness of the blacks was beginning to wear off when the trouble with the Frenchmen at Botany Bay and a similar incident in Sydney Cove put a temporary stop to friendly relations.

The natives were accustomed to leave their possessions—clubs, spears, fire sticks and so on—lying on the beach, and the Europeans received a strict order never to touch them. The whites, of course, disobeyed this order—they wanted curios—and thus began a quarrel. The natives, determined to have some return for their lost property, to the number of about a score, landed on an island and seized some European tools. The blacks were only driven into their canoes after the two or three white men in charge of the island opened fire on them, wounding several with small shot. The scene of this encounter was Garden Island, so called from its being set apart as a vegetable garden for the people of the Sirius. It is now the Imperial Naval Depôt in Sydney, the headquarters of the squadron on the Australian station, and is one of the most important naval establishments outside of Great Britain.

This outbreak of hostilities was followed soon afterwards by more serious disturbances. Convicts who straggled away from the settlement were often attacked and seriously wounded, and later on some were killed. In all these cases there was evidence that some provocation had, either through wantonness or ignorance of native susceptibilities, been given.

Phillip, anxious to put a stop to these disorders, determined as a first means to that end to capture a native and teach him some English, or learn from him enough of his language to establish communication between the two races.

Accordingly, a young man was seized and placed in charge of a trustworthy convict, the two being lodged in a hut near the main guardhouse. The black took it very coolly, and the convict reported that he slept and ate and drank with perfect indifference. Captain Hunter, whose account of what he saw and did is invaluable for the reason that his narrative is always in the unembellished log-book style of a plain sailor, thus tells the story:—

'As soon as the ship was secured, I went on shore to wait on the Governor, whom I found in good health. He was sitting by the fire drinking tea with a few friends, among whom I observed a native man of this country, who was decently cloathed, and seemed to be as much at his ease at the tea-table as any person there; he managed his cup and saucer as well as though he had been long accustomed to such entertainment. This man was taken from his friends, by force, by Lieutenant Ball, of the Supply, and Lieutenant George Johnston, of the marines, who were sent down the harbour with two boats for that purpose. … His name was Arabanoo, and he was taken … in the following manner. After having been a short time in conversation with some of the gentlemen, one of the seamen, who had been previously directed, threw a rope round his neck, and dragged him in a moment down to the boat. His cries brought a number of his friends into the skirts of the wood, from whence they threw many lances, but without effect. The terror this poor wretch suffered can better be conceived than expressed. He believed he was to be immediately murdered; but upon the officers coming into the boat, they removed the rope from his neck to his leg, and treated him with so much kindness that he became a little more chearful. He was for some time after his arrival at the Governor's house ornamented with an iron shackle about his leg, to prevent his being able to effect his escape with ease; this he was taught to consider as bang-ally, which is the name given in their language to every decoration; as he might well believe it a compliment paid to him, because it was no uncommon thing for him to see several (of the most worthless of the convicts, who had merited punishment) every day shackled like him, the cause of which he could not of course understand. However, he was very soon reconciled to his situation by the kind treatment he received from every person about him, and the iron growing uneasy, it was taken off, and he was allowed to go where he pleased. He very soon learnt the names of the different gentlemen who took notice of him, and when I was made acquainted with him, he learnt mine, which he never forgot, but expressed great desire to come on board my "nowèe"[2] which is their expression for a boat or other vessel upon the water. … I found him to be a very good-natured, talkative fellow; he was about thirty years of age, and tolerably well-looked. I expressed, when at the Governor's, much surprize at not having seen a single native on the shore, or a canoe as we came up in the ship, the reason of which I could not comprehend, until I was informed that the smallpox had made its appearance a few months ago amongst these unfortunate creatures, and that it was truly shocking to go round the coves of this harbour, which were formerly so much frequented by the natives, where, in the caves of the rocks which used to shelter whole families in bad weather, were now to be seen men, women and children lying dead.'

After the death of Arabanoo, who fell a victim to the smallpox, Phillip determined to repeat his civilising experiment, and in November 1789 two more natives were captured, Coleby and Bennilong; the last named is entitled to some notice here, for he was the first true Australian to visit England.

Mrs Macarthur, wife of Captain Macarthur, who introduced the merino sheep to the colony in 1790, in a letter to friends in England, says:—

'Amongst the unhappy objects' (i.e., those suffering from the smallpox) 'who were discovered were a boy and a girl; these were brought in, and from the humanity of the clergyman, who took the girl, and of the principal surgeon, Mr White, who took the boy, they were both saved. After they began to learn English and to make us understand them, it was imagined … that if a man or two could be brought to reside with us, that some valuable information might be obtained respecting the interior parts of the country.

'With this view the Governor left no means untried to effect an intimacy with them, but every endeavour of that sort, as before, prov'd ineffectual. … Despairing to gain their confidence by fair means, the Governor ordered that two men should be taken by force. This was done. The poor fellows … exhibited the strongest marks of terror and consternation at this proceeding, believing they were certainly meant to be sacrificed. When they were taken to the Governor's house, and immediately clean'd and clothed, their astonishment at everything they saw was amazing. A new world was unfolded to their view at once. For some days they were much dejected, but it soon gave way to cheerfulness. They were then admitted to the Governor's table, and in a little time ate and drank everything that was given them.

'The oldest of the two, Coleby, however, soon tired of his honourable captivity, and in a very artful manner one night made his escape. Bennilong stayed till May 1790, and then took himself off without any known reason, having been treated with the most uniform kindness.'

He had taken very kindly to the white men, and was given a hut on the eastern point of Sydney Cove, which was known for many years after, and is even now sometimes spoken of, as Bennilong Point. Fort Macquarie covers the site of the hut, and Government House is within a stone's throw of the place.

In one of her letters Mrs Macarthur tells of Bennilong's reappearance, and how that event nearly led to Phillip's death. On the 7th of September Captain Nepean and some other officers were on their way to Broken Bay when the boats put in at Manly Cove—now the most favourite seaside resort of the inhabitants of Sydney. Some 200 natives were there observed feeding on the carcase of a whale which had floated ashore. They seemed very friendly, and Nanberry (the boy above mentioned), who was in one of the boats, was told to inquire for Bennilong and Coleby, 'when, behold! both gentlemen appeared, and advancing with the utmost confidence, asked in broken English for all their old friends in Sydney.' Nepean at once sent a messenger to Phillip, who would, he knew, be pleased at the news.

Without losing time the Governor, accompanied by Mr Collins and Lieutenant Waterhouse, at once set out and reached Manly Cove. To show his friendly intentions, Phillip landed unarmed, and Bennilong approached and shook hands with him. Coleby, however, had disappeared. The Governor took care not to embarrass Bennilong by asking the reason of his flight, and the black appeared much pleased and thankful for some presents given him ,by Captain Nepean, and asked Phillip for a hatchet. This the Governor promised to bring him the next day. 'Then,' says Mrs Macarthur, 'Mr Collins and Mr Waterhouse now joined them, and several natives also came forward; they continued to converse with much seeming friendship until they' (the white men) 'had insensibly wandered some distance from the boat, … none of the gentlemen had the precaution to take a gun. … This the Governor perceiving, deemed it prudent to retreat, and after assuring Bennilong that he would remember his promise, told him he was going. At that moment an old-looking man advanced, whom Bennilong said was his friend, and wished the Governor to take notice of him. At this he approached the old man with his hand extended, when on a sudden the savage started back, and snatched up a spear from the ground and poized it to throw. The Governor, seeing the danger, told him in their tongue that it was bad, and still advanced, when, with a mixture of horror and intrepidity, the native discharged the spear with all his force at the Governor. It entered above his collar-bone, and came out at his back, nine inches from the entrance, taking an oblique direction. The natives from the rocks now poured in their spears in abundance, so that it was with the utmost difficulty and the greatest good fortune that no other hurt was received in getting the Governor into the boat.'

Phillip's personal coolness needs not this incident to prove its existence, but Mrs Macarthur's statement of his behaviour ought to have a place here. She says:—

'As soon as they returned to this place an universal solicitude prevail'd, as the danger of the wound could by no means be ascertained untill the spear was extracted, and this was not done before His Excellency had caus'd some papers to be arrang'd, lest the consequence might prove fatal, which happily it did not, for in drawing out the spear it was found that no vital part had been touch'd. … The wound perfectly heal'd in the course of a few weeks. … Bennilong came many times to see the Governor during his confinement, and expressed great sorrow; but the reason why the mischief was done could not be learnt.'

This incident happened in 1790, and Mr Southwell, the young man from whose letters we have before quoted, was at that time a very discontented master's mate, still without promotion. Let us hope that the change in his sentiments towards the Governor was not brought about too much by his disappointments, for his opinions on this adventure of Phillip's and on other matters to be quoted savour somewhat of bitterness.

'I cannot sufficiently express my approbation of your good sense in forbidding those who perused it to publish my insignificant narrative; or my chagrin at their improper conduct who have, notwithstanding, taken the liberty to do so. I saw it, being the concluding part, in the Hampshire Chronicle and Portsmouth and Chichester Journal, Sept'r 7, 1789. Mr Morgan, since we were at sea, came across it, and from peculiarity of stile immediately recognized it, as did most of our principals on board. I add that I am vexed at it for several reasons, and pray you to take care who you honour with a sight of my cobweb productions, if this is the way they honour them. Apropos, that date is the anniversary of the Governor's misfortune of the year 1790, when he was speared by a native in Manly Bay, in a manner which savours much of imprudence next to folly. Bennilong, as I said in my letters, had made his escape, and this was the first interview since that incident. It, however very near fatal, proved by no means so, as he soon recovered, and it was followed by the fullest intercourse with these people, insomuch that they eat, drink and sleep in the camp with the most perfect sangfroid; and some of their dames, like too many of ours, gladly forego that dear pleasure of nursing their own bratts, and leave them in perfect security to the care of several of the convict women, who are suitably rewarded by the Governor.'

By degrees the natives on the shores of the harbour grew more familiar with the whites, and in the course of two or three years, the aboriginals in the immediate neighbourhood of Sydney ceased to be a serious menace to the colonists, except in cases where individuals suffered through their own misconduct.

Phillip had so thoroughly won the affection of Bennilong that the black, by his own especial request, accompanied the Governor to England, taking with him a fellow-countryman, who before Phillip left had 'regularly joined His Excellency's household.'

Poor Bennilong succumbed to the benefits of civilisation. A letter from Hunter, written just before he sailed from Plymouth on his return to the colony in January 1795, alludes to him as follows:—

'Bennilong is with me, but I think in a precarious state of health. He has for the last twelve months been flattered with the hope of seeing again his native country—a happiness he has fondly looked forward to, but so long a disappointment has broken his spirit, and the coldness of the weather here has so frequently laid him up that I am apprehensive his lungs are affected—that was the cause of the other's death. I do all I can to keep him up, but still am doubtful of his living.'

The grave of 'the other,' to whom Hunter refers, is in the churchyard[3] of the village of Eltham, in Kent. Poor Hunter was put to considerable expense over these two aboriginals, who were a trying charge; and he did his best, though without result, to make the Government refund him his outlay.

During his stay in England, Bennilong did not apparently attract much attention. On his return to the colony he passed the remainder of his life drifting aimlessly about between the little township of Sydney and the native camps in its vicinity. Phillip's immediate successors apparently took but a languid interest in the native question, and beyond occasional squabbles between the two races and fragmentary stories of their customs, more or less inaccurately reported, little worth printing is recorded.

Of Bennilong himself we hear again from time to time, and he is always in disgrace, until at last the early chroniclers mention his name no longer.

Phillip's policy towards the natives, save in one instance, during his administration was to win their friendship by kindness. Even after he was wounded, he allowed no attempt at reprisals to be made, but, on the contrary, took a great deal of trouble to make Bennilong understand and inform his countrymen that the Governor regarded the outrage as arising from their fear of capture—a fear justified by the previous abduction of some of their number. The importance of preserving the crops from the thieving propensities of the blacks was the only excuse permitted for firing upon the aborigines.

Tench relates an incident which illustrates both the danger from the blacks, and the one occasion when Phillip got out of patience with them. In December 1790, a sergeant of marines, with three convicts, among whom was M'Entire, the Governor's gamekeeper, a man of whom Bennilong had always shown the utmost hatred and terror, went out to shoot kangaroos in the vicinity of Botany Bay. About midnight two natives were observed by the sergeant creeping towards the camp with spears in their hands; and M'Entire spoke to them in their own language, when one of them, without the least warning, sent a spear into his left side. The wound was pronounced by the surgeons to be mortal; then, writes Tench:—

'The poor wretch … began to utter the most dreadful exclamations, and to accuse himself of the commission of crimes of the deepest dye, accompanied with such expressions of his despair of God's mercy as are too terrible to repeat. He lingered until the 20th of January, and then expired. From the aversion uniformly shewn by all the natives to this unhappy man, he had long been suspected by us of having in his excursions shot and injured them. To gain information on this head from him, the moment of contrition was seized. On being questioned with great seriousness, he, however, declared that he had never fired but once on a native, and then had not killed, but severely wounded him, and this in his own defence. Notwithstanding this death-bed confession, most people doubted the truth of the relation, from his general character and other circumstances.'

Believing that the murder of M'Entire was quite unprovoked, the Governor was determined to inflict a stern punishment upon the natives. He, like many other cultured men, no doubt thought that that instinctive desire to kill strangers, so predominant in savage races, and termed bloodthirsty treachery by civilised people, was deserving of severe reprisals—not realising that fear and horror are the primary motives of attack. The party sent consisted of two captains, two subalterns, and forty privates with non-commissioned officers, and Tench was pitched upon to command it.

'His Excellency informed me,' says Tench, 'that … if practicable, we were to bring away two natives as prisoners; and to put to death ten; that we were to destroy all weapons of war but nothing else; that no hut was to be burned; that all women and children were to remain uninjured, not being comprehended within the scope of the order; that our operations were to be directed either by surprize or open force; that after we had made any prisoners, all communication, even with those natives with whom we were in habits of intercourse, was to be avoided, and none of them suffered to approach us; that we were to cut off and bring in the heads of the slain, for which purpose hatchets and bags would be furnished; and finally, that no signal of amity or invitation should be used in order to allure them to us; or if made on their part (was) to be answered by us; for that such conduct would be not only present treachery, but give them reason to distrust every future mark of peace and friendship on our part.'

Then Phillip gave his reasons.

'He said that since our arrival in the country, no less than seventeen of our people had either been killed or wounded by the natives; that he looked upon the tribe living on the before-mentioned peninsula, and chiefly on the north arm of Botany Bay, to be the principal aggressors; that against this tribe he was determined to strike a decisive blow, in order at once to convince them of our superiority, and to infuse an universal terror, which might operate to prevent farther mischief. … That his motive for having so long delayed to use violent measures had arisen from believing that in every former instance of hostility, they had acted either from having received injury, or from misapprehension. To the latter of these causes, added he, "I attribute my own wound; but in this business of M'Entire, I am fully persuaded … the barbarity of their conduct admits of no extenuation … and I am resolved to execute the prisoners who may be brought in, in the most public and exemplary manner, in the presence of as many of their countrymen as can be collected, after having explained the cause of such a punishment, and my fixed determination to repeat it whenever any future breach of good conduct on their side shall render it necessary."'

Hunter—all honour to him—proposed that, instead of destroying ten persons, the capture of six would better answer all the purposes for which the expedition was to be undertaken; as out of this number a part might be set aside for retaliation; and the rest at a proper time liberated, after having seen the fate of their comrades, and being made sensible of the cause of their own detention.

'This scheme His Excellency was pleased instantly to adopt, adding, "If six cannot be taken, let this number be shot. Should you, however, find it practicable to take so many, I will hang two, and send the rest to Norfolk Island for a certain period, which will cause their countrymen to believe that we have despatched them secretly."

'At four o'clock on the morning of the 14th we marched; … provided with three days' provisions, ropes to bind our prisoners with, and hatchets and bags, to cut off and contain the heads of the slain. …'

Tench and his men spent two or three days in this attempt, but the natives eluded capture, and says the narrator:—

'At one o'clock we renewed our march, and at three halted near a fresh water swamp, where we resolved to remain until morning; that is, after a day of severe fatigue, to pass a night of restless inquietude, when weariness is denied repose by swarms of mosquitoes and sand-flies, which in the summer months bite and sting the traveller without measure or intermission. Next morning we bent our steps homeward; and, after wading breast-high through two arms of the sea, as broad as the Thames at Westminster, were glad to find ourselves at Sydney between one and two o'clock in the afternoon.'

This expedition against the natives, when compared with that undertaken by Governor Arthur in Tasmania in 1830, was a very mild affair. Settlers in the pursuance of private quarrels have murdered more blacks than were killed by English officials during the whole of their administration of the Colony. Even modern methods in Africa, when compared with Phillip's treatment of the natives, suffer by comparison.

Soon after this incident a serious rupture between the two races occurred in this manner. A native named Ballooderry was accustomed to catch fish and exchange them with the settlers at Parramatta. Some convicts one day destroyed this man's canoe. Ballooderry watched his opportunity, and retaliated by spearing a convict, although Phillip had already punished the first aggressors. The Governor would not allow Ballooderry to be punished for this, but issued an order that he and his tribe were not to come near the settlement. From that day the natives in the vicinity never visited Parramatta.

After Phillip left the colony, no serious endeavour was made to civilise the aborigines. The race, as we have said, is now fast dying out. Whereas in the first Governor's time it was estimated, as stated above, that on the shores of Port Jackson, Botany Bay, and Broken Bay alone[4] there were at least 1500 blacks; only a stray one is ever seen in these localities now.

  1. Phillip was wrong in this conclusion. The Australian blacks are adepts in producing fire by the friction of two sticks.
  2. Compare the Latin 'navis' and the Greek 'ναὒς.'
  3. 'The stone bears the following inscription:—'In memory of Yemmerrawanyea, a native of New South Wales, who died the 18th May 1794, in the 19th year of his age. Stone renewed 1882.'
  4. The Aborigines Protection Board, which sends aboriginal children to school and supplies the blacks with blankets and rations, in the annual report for 1896, states that the total number of 'blacks' in New South Wales was 6984, 'of whom 3481 are half-castes.'